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Goldenweiser, Alexander A.


GOLDENWEISER, ALEXANDER A. (18801940), was an American anthropologist and student of primitive religions. Born in Kiev, the son of a distinguished jurist and criminologist, Alexander Alexandrovich Goldenweiser was educated in his native Ukraine, and later, at the graduate level, in the United States. An important early influence was the intellectual companionship and guidance of his father, Alexander Solomonovich Goldenweiser, a social thinker influenced by Hegel and Spencer. Father and son shared a broad intellectual outlook and traveled together in Europe.

Goldenweiser immigrated as a young man to the United States and from 1900 to 1901 pursued graduate study in philosophy at Harvard. He later shifted his studies to Columbia, where he came into contact with Franz Boas and his students, and took his doctoral degree in 1910 under Boas's supervision. Goldenweiser taught as an instructor at Columbia from 1910 to 1919, served as a lecturer in the Rand School of Social Sciences from 1915 to 1929, and was professor of thought and culture at the Portland Extension of the University of Oregon from 1930 until his death in 1940. He also taught at the New School for Social Research, the University of Wisconsin, and Reed College.

Although he carried out several months of anthropological fieldwork (on the social and political organization of the Northern Iroquois), Goldenweiser's primary interests were theoretical. He was known as the most philosophical of American anthropologists, and he remarked once that he would rather read bad theory than no theory at all. The formative influence on his mature work was clearly that of Boas and his students. Goldenweiser's most influential writings are sober and sharp-sighted critiques of the cultural evolutionism and diffusionism prevalant in the early twentieth century.

Goldenweiser's "Totemism: An Analytical Study" appeared in 1910, the same year as James Frazer's monumental Totemism and Exogamy, although, as Lévi-Strauss later noted, Goldenweiser's 110 pages were to have a more permanent theoretical influence than Frazer's four volumes. Frazer sought to establish the status of totemism as an evolutionary stage of religious development, a sort of universal primitive institution. Goldenweiser argued that what was called "totemism" was in fact merely the co-occurrence of three otherwise distinct traitsthe differentiation of formally similar clans, the use of plant and animal symbols to distinguish them, and the recognition of a special relation between clan and totem.

Goldenweiser, often immersed in the themes and issues of his times, wrote widely on a number of topics relating to culture and history. It was, however, in such works as his analysis of totemism, or his essay (1913) on "The Principle of Limited Possibilities in the Development of Cultures" (in which he argues, against the diffusionists, that limited possibilities make cultural similarities inevitable) that his remarkable, critical intellect was able to transcend the limitations of its era.


Goldenweiser's most significant contribution to the study of religion was his essay "Totemism: An Analytical Study," Journal of American Folk-Lore 23 (1910): 179293. A shorter early essay sets forth the "minority position" on the subject of independent invention and diffusion: "The Principle of Limited Possibilities in the Development of Culture," Journal of American Folk-Lore 26 (1913): 259270.

New Sources

Shapiro, Warren. "Claude Leví-Strauss Meets Alexander Goldenweiser: Boasian Anthropology and the Study of Totemism." American Anthropologist 93 (1991): 599610.

Roy Wagner (1987)

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